Minister Sharma laments SOCU sloth

Jaipaul Sharma

Junior Minister of Finance, Jaipaul Sharma has lamented the sloth in investigations from the 50 forensic audits that government has paid over $133M for saying that he is uncertain now if by the end of his government’s term in office in 2020, there would be any convictions.

Sharma says that as the person responsible for the audits and second in charge of the nation’s purse, he wants the respective agencies to speak up on what is causing the delays and indicate if they need additional resources and how soon.

“I know that SOCU (Special Organised Crime Unit) is working, I know they are pressured but it is what we can do, how we can help? It is a question I am asking on whether we will ever get a conviction? We have two more years and we are not sure if we will get a conviction with the way things are going,” he told Stabroek News on the sidelines of the sitting of the National Assembly, last week.

During his contribution to the debate on the National Payment System legislation, the week before, a seemingly upset Sharma told the House of his annoyance.

“If I am the person conducting the audit, I know what the audits contain and I am annoyed that there is no prosecution…I want to know why there is no prosecution. Is it SOCU not doing their work, is it [that] the law weak, is it [that] the legislation weak? What really is happening?” he questioned.

“I know there are issues. If the police are finding difficulty to summon witnesses to court or to ask the bank for any … information, [is] this is the reason why it is being stalled? Our auditors do not have the authority to summon people to give statements. They don’t have the authority to go in people’s accounts…they can’t arrest people. The auditors did their assessments based on paperwork. The Police are the ones who have the authority,” he added.

Sharma said that it bothers him that while time ticks away no one is telling the Ministry of Finance why there are delays in prosecutions. He said that if there is a problem with resources, the ministry could probably help but can only do so if asked.

“I know they are working. If not ask for additional police legal advisors. We got information that files are stuck at the police advisors and the DPP’s [Director of Public Prosecutions] office.  So my frustration is not just the rate of matters going to court but also about the legal system,” he lamented.

“The people we are going after have the best lawyers, look for example they have a former Chief Justice, they have senior counsel, and they have (attorney at law) Nigel (Hughes) and all the other top attorneys. Who do we have? We have an ordinary special prosecutor that I think no one has ever heard about. I never heard of him. I wanted to ask Sam [Sittlington] if the cailbre of the prosecutors need to be looked at but at the seminar we had we could not have one on one,” he added.

Scathing

He pointed out also that Sittlington faces scathing attacks from the opposition, who seem to want to mock him over the fact that there have not been many prosecutions. It is in that vein that Sharma says that SOCU has to sit with the ministry to tell of their problems and how the ministry could assist.

Minister of Finance, Winston Jordan says that he understands that prosecution can take a long time but would not question his junior’s frustration because he had delegated the duties of looking at the audits to him and he would know first-hand what information and evidence was gathered.

“Put it this way, in our division of labour, I had put that responsibility to Mr. Sharma so he has made a comment on that. So I could not say directly to any case or cases, since he is more hands on in that area than me. I could not say if the process is being frustrated or not,” Jordan said.

“I will say that when it comes to matters of the court and police and so on, unless you are very trained in those areas, it would be difficult to say whether your frustration is valid or not because, as you can see, if you do not do proper investigations…it would fall. A report is a report, then you have to go and do legwork to accumulate the evidence. A lot of the things in reports might be speculation. So now you have to do the legwork to ensure you build a convincing case that the DPP will accept and can stand up to the rigours in a court,” he added.

Jordan said that it is well known that this country does not have the skilled personnel to undertake the investigations of white collar investigations. As such, the time to the stage of prosecution will take longer than in other countries that have special staff catering for such investigations and prosecutions. 

“You can rush at your own peril where these matters are concerned. We did over 50 audits and essentially …we don’t have the skills. The man from the UK has helped with a couple that has been before the court but we don’t have the skill set … Plus we don’t have the resources to go chasing where some of the evidence that could or may be found,” the Minister of Finance said.

“I won’t go as far as to express any frustration because I don’t know the state at which the various files are at  … but  I can appreciate the lack of human and financial and other resources that SOCU is faced with , plus the whole need to get cases which can be prosecuted in court,” he added .

Since taking office in 2015, the APNU+AFC government has spent in excess of $133M on the 50 forensic audits they commissioned into state entities.

According to Minister Jordan the audits were done in accordance with Section 4 (4) of the 2004 Audit Act which states in part that “Government’s right to conduct or cause to be conducted internal audits remains unimpaired.” He also noted that in addition to that legal authority Cabinet approved the forensic audit of selected entities, projects and funds.

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